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  • Convicted: Landmark Cases in British Criminal History by Gary Powell

    Great Britain has one of the oldest judicial systems in the world. Our common law can be traced back to the Middle ages, the jury system as its cornerstone, with the basic tenet that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The law of course cannot stand still and has to move with the times to be fit for purpose in relation to Britain’s ever-changing social and economic traits, even to the point of questioning the effectiveness of the jury system in some cases. My latest book: Convicted: Landmark Cases in British Criminal History outlines 100 such cases that have strengthened this country’s reputation for fairness and justice. Each of these cases or methods of crime detection were presented to a court of law and tested as far as their legality and credibility and each has changed or affected the process of law enforcement in this country.

    Where’s the Body?

    The Cotswold village of Chipping Campden was the centre of one of Britain’s most extraordinary criminal cases, dubbed the ‘Campden Wonder’, which resulted in an historic ruling that would survive well into the twentieth century. On 16 August 1660 local businessman William Harrison left his home in Chipping Campden to collect some rent from neighbouring farms. When he failed to return home that night his son, also called William, and his manservant – John Perry – set out to find him. On the route they expected William to have taken they discovered some personal items and clothing belonging to the missing man, some were covered in blood. An investigation took place; John Perry initially blamed his mother and brother for the murder but eventually all three stood trial for the killing of Harrison even though Harrison’s body was never recovered. All three were found guilty and executed.

    A year after the executions the close-knit community were shocked to learn that the ‘victim’ of this horrendous crime – William Harrison – had returned to the village in full health with an incredible story. He informed the authorities that on the night in question he had been violently abducted by several men and taken to the Port of Deal where he was bundled onto a Turkish ship and later sold as a slave. Following the death of his elderly master he managed to escape and concealed himself on board a Portuguese ship and travelled to Dover. Following this incredible miscarriage of justice resulting in the execution of three innocent people British courts followed a principle of ‘no body, no charge of murder’. This principle was maintained well into the twentieth century when advances in forensic science in such cases as George Haigh – the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’ proved beyond doubt that murder had taken place without the need for a body to be present.

    Made his Mark

    A feature on Albert and Alfred Stratton, the first murderers to be convicted on fingerprint evidence. (Illustrated Police News, 27 May 1905, Convicted, Amberley Publishing)

    The estimated odds of billions to one that two human beings shared the same fingerprint (including those of twins) became the basis of the most important discovery in the world of crime detection. Edward Henry a member of the Indian Civil Service and Inspector General of the Bengal Police devised a workable system for classifying fingerprints. Henry, who was appointed Assistant Commissioner of Crime at Scotland Yard in 1901, established the Fingerprint Bureau. Initially the primary function of the Bureau was to enable police to identify offenders with previous criminal convictions; but within a short period of time the science of fingerprint identification would evolve into an effective tool in crime detection.

    The first criminal conviction, using a fingerprint as prime evidence, was the case of habitual thief Harry Jackson in September 1902. Jackson was suspected of several burglaries in south London and eventually arrested by a sharp-eyed police constable called George Drewitt whilst attempting to break into the Perseverance Pub on Vassal Road in Brixton. One of the burglaries leading up to his arrest occurred at 156 Denmark Hill the home of the Tustin family; Jackson had gained entry through a ground floor window and stolen a number of ivory snooker balls but whilst doing so had left a fingerprint on a recently painted window sill. The fingerprint was examined by officers from the fingerprint bureau and positively matched to Jackson. When the case was tried at the Central Criminal Court Old Bailey Jackson pleaded not guilty. This was a make or break case for the forensic science of fingerprint examination as the whole case rested on one fingerprint which placed the defendant at the scene of the crime. The evidence was strongly tested by the court with officers from the fingerprint bureau giving expert testimonies. The judge and jury accepted the validity of the evidence and convicted Harry Jackson. Many commentators of the day still doubted the new crime-fighting revelation; one wrote to The Times commenting that ‘Scotland Yard, once known as the world’s finest police organisation, will be the laughing stock of Europe if it insists in trying to trace criminals by odd ridges on the skin’.

    Drunk in Charge

    The former Marlborough Street Magistrates Court, which witnessed the first recorded trail for the offence of drink-driving in 1897. (Author's collection, Convicted, Amberley Publishing)

    A licensed cab driver was observed, by local police officer PC Russell, driving his cab erratically along Bond Street in London at 12.45am on 11 September 1897. George Smith swerved from one side of the road to the other before running across the footway and crashing into No.165 breaking a water pipe and causing damage to the property’s front window. PC Russell approached Smith and realised that he had been drinking and escorted him to Vine Street police station in what is believed to be the first recorded case of drink-driving. Smith was examined by a local police surgeon who confirmed his drunkenness and that he should not have been in charge of his vehicle.

    Smith was charged and appeared in front of the magistrates at Marlborough Street police court later that same morning. When questioned by PC Russell in front of the bench he admitted that he had consumed several glasses of beer. The magistrate in sentencing Smith to a fine of twenty shillings advised the cabbie: ‘you motor-car drivers ought to be very careful, for if anything happens to you – well, the police have a very happy knack of stopping a runaway horse, but to stop a motor is a very different thing’.

     

    ‘999 Emergency’

    Burglar Thomas Duffy was the first to be apprehended and convicted through the new emergency hotline introduced in 1937. (Convicted, Amberley Publishing)

    An innovative emergency telephone system, where any member of the public could pick up a telephone and dial 999 free of charge, operated by the General Post Office was launched in London on 30 June 1937. The launch of the system was accompanied by a public education campaign in several newspapers including the London Evening News which advised its readers to:

    ‘Only dial 999 if the matter is urgent; if, for instance, the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar peering around the stack pipe of the local bank building… If the matter is less urgent, if you have merely lost little Towser or a lorry has come to rest in your front garden, just call up the local police.’

    The new 999 system quickly proved a success when just a week later the first arrest was made as a result of such an emergency call. During the early hours of 7 July 1937 architect John Stanley Beard of Hampstead in north London had been awoken by a noise outside his bedroom window. As he peered out he saw a would-be intruder, later identified as Thomas Duffy. Beard’s quick-thinking wife rang 999 and gave a description of the suspect and a direction in which he had decamped. Police acted quickly and arrested Duffy nearby; he was charged and convicted of attempted breaking and entering. Mr Beard was delighted with the result and commented after the event that: ‘…it struck me, as a householder and fairly large taxpayer that we are getting something for our money and I was very impressed by it.’

    During the first week of the 999 launch police received 1,336 calls -ninety-one were pranks. The service was launched in Glasgow the following year followed by several other major cities; but the rest of the country had to wait until 1976 for the system to become national when all telephone exchanges became automated. Today the 999 system (now incorporating all emergency services) receives in excess of thirty-million calls a year.

    Put Your Foot In It

    Plantar evidence (the anatomy relating to the sole of the foot) was first used in the English courts in 1956.

    Sydney Malkin was a 47-year-old chef who had a penchant for women’s underwear. In 1956 he broke into the Hastings flat of Mrs Edith Bowles and stole items of underwear and a silk slip. Mrs Bowles, whose flat was on an upper level, had left her underwear out to dry with the windows open. Mrs Bowles reported the crime to local police officer – PC Ernest Parker. Parker examined the point of entry and was astonished to discover a number of bare footprints – one on top of the television, one on a loudspeaker and finally one on the floor. The unusual modus operandi of stealing women’s underwear from high-rise flats matched Sydney Malkin. He was arrested and comparisons were examined between the footprints left at the crime scene and impressions taken of Malkin’s feet – they were identical. Fingerprint expert Detective Superintendent Holten from Scotland Yard presented his findings to the magistrates at Hastings. Malkin was convicted – the first case of its kind in England – and bound over to keep the peace for three years.

    Gary Powell's new book Convicted: Landmark Cases in British Criminal History is available for purchase now.

  • Preston in the 1960s by Keith Johnson

    The new C&A Modes store on Friargate. (Preston in the 1960s, Amberley Publishing)

    Imagine a decade when tall towers and structures rose from the rubble of slum clearance with bulldozers, bricks and builders abounding, with one firm claiming to build a house in a day. A time when cobbled streets were making way for highways and a road was coming that would split Friargate in two.

    A period when churches and chapels of all denominations seemed to be enjoying a heyday with congregations full of enthusiastic worshippers. The Roman Catholics, the Church of England and the Methodists all going their separate ways, but being united in progress.

    School days also were changing. The old and decaying church schools were beginning to make way for the Secondary Modern and all the advances in reading, writing and arithmetic, plus the odd foreign language thrown in.

    Fishergate 1962. A buisy thoroughfare with cars and shoppers. (Preston in the 1960s, Amberley Publishing)

     

    With employment levels high, working hours shorter and younger people with more of a disposable income, a leisure industry was beginning to thrive. The days when television sets had become the norm in most households, although generally they were only rented and the pictures were in black and white. The cinemas had started to feel a decline in audiences, although Preston still had a number of town centre auditoriums for the film fans. Bingo halls and betting shops were beginning to take their place amongst the leisure activities as gambling rules changed. These were also the days of teenage dreamers who wanted to look fashionable, record shops selling hit parade vinyl records, coffee bars, discotheques, youth clubs and those mods and rockers. And for the more mature there were still the dance halls for more of a strictly ballroom way of dancing and many still enjoyed a visit to the theatre.

    Rising from the site of 460 demolised houses off Moor-lane, Preston, is this skyscraper block-one of three 16-storey buildings, which together will provide homes for 435 families. (Preston in the 1960s, Amberley Publishing)

     

    Public houses were as popular as ever, despite some of the older inns and many of those on terraced street corners being swept away in the name of progress. No longer were Ribbleton Lane, North Road and New Hall Lane roads of endless public houses.

    It was a decade that saw the world of high street shopping and commerce begin to change. Preston was no exception in that respect with proprietors of Friargate, Fishergate and Church Street all bowing to progress. The town's shops half day closing on a Thursday was under threat, although Sunday opening was still a generation away. Mums had proper shopping baskets not plastic carrier bags and in many a premises it was not self-service, with shopkeepers happy to weigh and measure your purchase be it butter, lard or treacle toffee. That was all about to change.

    Preston likes to do things politically correct and the 1960s were no exception. Excitement at the Preston ballot box drew national attention and leading politicians came canvassing for votes. The battle for the Preston North & Preston South constituencies were nail biting affairs. In some ways it was much simpler then with just the Tories or Labour to choose from, besides the odd Independent who threw their hat into the local election arena. It was a decade when the local political parties flexed their muscles and the politicians of Preston made crucial decisions that would shape the town for generations to come.

    The remains of the fire-favaged Gothis town hall were about to be demolised. (Preston in the 1960s, Amberley Publishing)

    In the 1960s the people of Preston had a great passion for sport. Youngsters were brought up enjoying kicking a football or playing cricket or rounders on the cobbled streets or the parks. Swimming, tennis, basketball, rugby, golf, crown green bowling all flourished in days when many rode their bicycle to work for exercise. The passion for Preston North End was strong although it was a decade of more downs than ups, having started the period in the top flight of the Football League. Nonetheless, they had their moments of glory and throughout the decade the 'Last Football' Post kept you up to date with match reports on the action.

    A decade when the Preston Borough Police force would eventually hand over control to the Lancashire Constabulary. It meant a last goodbye for the Chief Constable of Preston. Sadly, there were those with murder in mind who shocked local folk with their criminal activity. The killing of a pub landlady, the slaughter of a pregnant wife and the hanging of two former Preston dairymen amongst the tragedies of the decade. Preston Prison was once more a useful institution after decades of decline and over 700 prisoners were kept within its walls.

    All the fun of the Whitsuntide Fair in the centre of Preston Market Square. (Preston in the 1960s, Amberley Publishing)

    “Run and get the fire brigade” was all too often the cry and Preston Fire Brigade certainly went to blazes in the 1960s. They had begun the decade on Tithebarn Street, but that would change. Besides the numerous blazes on street corners on Bonfire Night there were many more challenging fires to dampen down. A ten pin bowling alley and a fashion store amongst them.

    A fondly remembered Easter was that of 1960 with hot cross buns, stations of the cross, rambles in the countryside, egg rolling on Avenham Park, football at Deepdale, greyhound racing, railway excursions and the inevitable traffic jams. On the Avenham and Miller Parks, it seemed that the national 'Keep Britain Tidy' campaign was paying dividends. The Parks Department staff commented that although up to 40,000 had been out egg rolling the litter was only half as much as previously.

    Throughout the decade Preston was still clinging to the old Whitsuntide traditions. The Market Square and Covered Market both hosting the annual fair with candyfloss, parched peas, coconut shies, stalls bedecked with toys, and swings and roundabouts aplenty. It seems that life was just like a merry-go-round with all the fun of the fair, and a chance to win a goldfish.

    Woolworths always attracted the Christmas shoppers. (Preston in the 1960s, Amberley Publishing)

    As for winter a look back to 1963 is sure to leave you feeling the chill. Frozen pipes, icy roads and frost bitten fields. Christmas 1962 had arrived with freezing fog, a sprinkling of snow and temperatures below freezing in Preston. In the months ahead it was burst water mains, blizzards, frozen ponds and even a frozen Lancaster Canal.

    As the decade moved towards the close it seemed apt to pay a visit to Preston on moon landing day. The tradition Wakes Week fortnight had left the town deserted and it seemed as though everyone had gone to the moon. One Preston man was celebrating after his wager on man landing on the moon before the decade was out paying off. Back on planet Earth there had been a walkout by workers on Preston Dock, and Courtaulds had just ended an overtime ban. Yet industry was thriving with booming exports announced by the British Aircraft Corporation and at Leyland Motors things were going well with £1m worth of orders secured.

    In the years that followed, the decade was described as the Sensational, the Savage, the Swinging, the Saucy and even the Sexy Sixties, and it left the townsfolk with memories that would linger for a life time. On reflection the decade seems to have started with a grey/black/white appearance and ended in glorious technicolour much like our television sets. Certainly, the views had become more panoramic and the building boom that followed the post war baby boom meant the town of Preston was becoming a city in waiting.

    Keith Johnson's book Preston in the 1960s is available for purchase now.

  • William Speirs Bruce: Forgotten Polar Hero by Isobel P. Williams and John Dudeney

    William Speirs Bruce pictured in The Siege of the South Pole by Alston Rivers (1905). (William Speirs Bruce: Forgotten Polar Hero, Amberley Publishing)

    This biography published in March 2018, comes at an excellent time for a reappraisal of William Speirs Bruce’s life and contribution. The work covers his childhood, his early medical training, his decision to abandon medicine for the more precarious life of a naturalist, his training in this field and his struggles to get financial support in his chosen career. It deals with significant myths that have become associated with him.

    When Bruce finally achieved Scottish support for his expedition, The Scotia Expedition, he sailed from Scotland under the Scottish banner and with a Scottish crew. On this 1902 expedition to the Antarctic, he discovered new land bordering the Weddell Sea - which entirely altered our understanding of the geography of the area - and he made an unrivalled number of meteorological and oceanographic records. He built a meteorological station in the South Orkneys that is still operated today by Argentina

    He contributed significantly to knowledge about the Arctic Regions. He charted and explored many Arctic islands and was a pioneer in attempting to achieve a commercial mineral extraction business in Spitsbergen.

    A. Rankin, R. T. Omond and R. C. Mossman. Colleagues of Bruce at the Ben Nevis Observatory. (p. 40 of the Weathermen of Ben Nevis, Roy M. (2004), William Speirs Bruce: Forgotten Polar Hero, Amberley Publishing)

    His training in the natural sciences in Edinburgh taught him the value of scientific international cooperation and he was a leader in linking up with scientists in Europe and South America to make a model for international collaboration and advancement of knowledge.

    Some myths concerning Bruce persist. Neither he nor any members of the Scotia expedition were honoured by the award of the Polar Medal; this was in contrast to his fellow explorers Scott and Shackleton. Bruce believed, for the rest of his life, that this omission was due to the malign influence of Sir Clements Markham (the then President of the RGS). This is almost certainly not true. The Scotia expedition simply was not eligible for the award because the medal was reserved for expeditions that had Government sponsorship and financial support. Bruce’s expedition was entirely privately funded from Scottish sources.

    There is a persistent belief that he handed his observatory on Laurie Island to the Argentine, because the British Government refused to assist him.  This is a myth, his reasons for the handover were scientific, and he never approached the Government for funds for the observatory.

    A modern photograph of the South Georgia coast, the object of so much of Bruce's single-minded focus. (Courtesy of Liam Quinn under Creative Commons 2.0, William Speirs Bruce: Forgotten Polar Hero, Amberley Publishing)

    In handing the Laurie Island scientific station to Argentina in 1904, Bruce inadvertently made a very significant contribution to the vexed geopolitical issues which surrounded the Antarctic from the turn of the last century until the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1957. The handover marked the start of a major and persistent territorial dispute between Britain and Argentina, one that became coupled with continuing disagreements over sovereignty of the Falklands.

    Bruce always believed that Markham blighted his career more generally. In relation to funds, he always considered that the British Government favoured “English” enterprises and that his applications, coming from the North, put him at a disadvantage. In fact the problem seems to have been that he couldn’t rise above his narrow Scottish nationalism and take a more “British” view for his various projects. If he had been able to do this, it is likely that he would have gained more Government support.

    The map showing the original plan and route of the Scotia expedition in relation to other international plans (British and German). It would have involved two winters and a station at high Southern latitude (here shown rather fancifully at around 82 S). Bruce was forced to scale back through insufficient funds. (GDL, William Speirs Bruce: Forgotten Polar Hero, Amberley Publishing)

    As can be seen Bruce could be difficult; marital problems, financial problems and overwork contributed to this, but he may have had, in addition, an autistic tendency. This is suggested firstly by his friend Rudmose Brown’s comment that no man and certainly no woman ever got close to him - and further by his persistent difficulties in social communication, social interaction and social imagination. He had a highly focused range of interests, an obsessive focus on his work, a low tolerance for mistakes, excellent visual skills, and a dogged persistence in following a single project. He collected every scrap of communication, and even scraps of paper, obsessively. He was never a “clubbable” man. Importantly he had no personal connection with the London establishment, in contrast to Scott and Shackleton, who used their informal contacts into the corridors of power to great effect.

    But in spite of this tendency, or perhaps because of it, his contribution to science, particularly oceanography, was probably greater and more lasting than any of his contemporaries, and overall, his contribution to polar endeavours in the Heroic Era is certainly at least equal to the much better known names: Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen.

    It is time that this forgotten hero takes his place in the public mind alongside these men.

    Isobel Williams and John Dudeney's new book William Speirs Bruce: Forgotten Polar Hero is available for purchase now.

  • Dundee in 50 Buildings by Brian King

    St Salvador’s Church, Dundee

    St Salvador's Church. (Dundee in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the benefits of writing a book like Dundee in 50 Buildings book is that it literally makes you look again at buildings that you may have known all your life and notice details that you had not previously seen. Another is that it gives you a reason to visit places that you may have heard of but have never visited. In my case St Salvador’s Church was one such building. The church is situated in a different area of Dundee to the one in which I had grown up and, before researching the book, I had never had cause to visit it.

    St Salvador’s is the result of a mission to the Hilltown area of Dundee launched in 1855 by Bishop Alexander Penrose Forbes and Reverend James Nicholson of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Building on the site at Maxwelltown was undertaken in stages between 1858 and 1874. The first structure to be erected was the building that today is the Maxwell Centre but which originally comprised a school with a temporary church above. The church itself was built in two stages with the nave being constructed in 1867-8 and the chancel and Lady Altar in 1874.

    The Nave of St Salvador's Church. (Dundee in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    The man behind this building was one of the most important ecclesiastical architects of the Victorian era, George Frederick Bodley. Bodley was born in Hull in 1827 and in 1845 became a pupil of the foremost figure in the Gothic revival movement Sir George Gilbert Scott, to whom he was related by marriage. Like many of his contemporaries, Bodley was concerned not just with the structure of his buildings but with their furnishings and decoration, helping to revive the mediaeval use of colour in his church interiors.

    For the poor millworkers who occupied the Hilltown area at the time the church was built, walking into St Salvador’s must have been the amazing, uplifting experience that Bodley intended it to be. They were greeted by a dazzling display of colour and artwork that contrasted sharply with the grim realities of their daily lives in Victorian Dundee. The building is still capable of provoking such a reaction in the twenty first century.

    The Nave of St Salvador's Church. (Dundee in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

     

    The walls and ceiling are decorated throughout with stencil painting designed by Bodley. Originally in watercolour this was replaced in oil paint in 1936 and restored in 1972. The nave is mainly decorated in a light green colour designed to direct the eye towards the chancel. The chancel arch in contrast is chiefly a deep red colour. The painted and gilded iron chancel screen was designed by Bodley as was the beautifully painted panelled reredos which fills the whole of the east wall.  The central panels of the reredos depict the crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary and St John at the foot of the Cross. The surrounding panels show the Apostles and the Archangels. Above is a fresco of the Annunciation.

    Other notable features of the church include the highly decorated organ which was restored in 1997.The stained-glass windows show various saints and are the work of the renowned English firm of Burlison and Grylls, except for that in the rose window in the west gable of the Lady Chapel which was transferred from the similar window in the temporary church next door.

    The organ at St Salvador's Church. (Dundee in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    St Salvador’s Church remains an active place of worship in the Scottish Episcopal Church today. As well as the standard service times, the church is regularly open to visitors and has participated in Doors Open days in recent years. Much has changed about the Hilltown area in the century and more since St Salvador’s Church was built, but the area is still a deprived one and the church opens its doors to those in need each Sunday afternoon, providing food, drink, friendship and advice. Impressive as the building is, the fact that the church is still fulfilling its original mission is perhaps even more so.

    Visiting St Slavador’s for myself has not only given me an interest in seeing more of Bodley’s work elsewhere but also a determination when visiting other towns and cities to seek out more of the fascinating buildings that are not necessarily part of the tourist trail. Based on my own experience of writing one, I think that buying the local “in 50 Buildings” book would be a good place to start.

    Brian King's new book Dundee in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

  • Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War by Sally White

    Belgian refugees arriving in the Netherlands, 1914. (Courtesy LOC, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the joys of being a museum curator is all the odd bits of information that come your way.  I worked in Worthing Museum for almost 20 years and relished the salmagundi of snippets that I picked up.  One day I was leafing through an album of old press cuttings when I spotted one from 1920 that reported Worthing’s decision to adopt a town in France under the auspices of the British League of Help for the Devastated Areas of France. Like most people, I had never heard of this organisation and had no idea what they did.  Information was very thin on the ground in those pre-internet days but I set out to investigate.

    My research regularly encroached on my holidays and when I was in France I did a detour to Richebourg l’Avoué, the town that Worthing adopted.  I called on the Mayor and was delighted to find that his wife was the granddaughter of the man who had been Mayor in 1920 and whose visit to Worthing had been reported in the local papers.  They whisked me off in their car to visit a nonagenarian clog maker, Monsieur Sénéchal, who was happy to share his memories of the adoption with me, mentioning a number of the gifts that had been sent over to help the local people rebuild their lives and their town. He also enthused about the height of the Bengal Lancers and seeing The Prince of Wales at the opening of a local war cemetery. I visited a number of other towns that been adopted and helped in the aftermath of the First World War.

    The sheer scale of the effort needed to care for the refugees is illustrated by this photograph of 600 refugee children being given tea at Earl's Court London. (c. Imperial War Museum, ref. HU88813, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    After a while I felt I had gone as far as I could with my research, wrote an article about the adoption scheme, presented a paper at a conference, and put it all aside.  Some years later I was made redundant and dug out my notes. I broadened my research to include other civilian-run schemes that helped people here and abroad during and just after the war.  I soon realised the enormous scale of the contribution made by civilians, often acting on their own initiative and with great bravery and imagination.

    In 1929 a journalist called Mrs C. S. Peel wrote that one day someone could write a book about all the work civilians did to support the war effort.  I was amazed to find that nobody had ever tackled this subject and that most books about the war limited their references to civilian volunteers to enthusing about the efforts of VADs on the Western Front and to disparaging the efforts of those who busily knitted socks and mufflers for soldiers. The further I went with my research the more determined I became to write a book giving readers an insight into what hundreds of thousands of civilians achieved here and abroad.

    Having got an excruciating job with the local council to pay the bills I had to research, write, and give talks in my ‘spare time’.  In practice this meant getting up at 5.30 am so that I could get an hour’s work in each day before starting my main job, carrying on in the evenings, heading off to archives or the university library at weekends and using much of my annual leave to visit archive offices and museums.  I loved it and it kept me sane when the day job was at its worst. New areas of interest kept opening up.

    I had been unaware that 250,000 Belgian refugees fled to Britain in the early weeks of the war and had to be welcomed fed, housed and generally cared for.  Many of them stayed for the duration of the war and the volunteers who looked after them soon struggled to collect enough money to support them. I spent months engrossed in reading about the refugees and how hosts in different areas looked after their guests.  The committee in Cambridge produced a very useful booklet for the refugees to help them find their feet in England.  However, I suspect that recipes for dishes that included Toad in the Hole and Shepherd’s Pie may have seemed bewildering.

    Weaving was one of the crafts that the Quakers established at Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man to help occupy the internees and enable them to earn a small income. (c. Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Hospital units not only worked in France and Belgium but went off to Serbia and Russia where the volunteers battled extremes of weather, isolation, epidemics, being taken prisoner, working through the Russian Revolution and joining the Serbian Army on the Great Retreat over the mountains of Montenegro in the cruel depths of winter in addition to helping thousands of wounded soldiers in incredibly primitive conditions.

    The Quakers took on various roles that nobody else recognised.  During the war groups went out to France to help civilians living close to the Front.  They built simple wooden houses, provided furniture, clothes and other goods, ran a maternity hospital and an orphanage and helped on farms.  When the rebuilt villages were shelled the Quakers set about restoring them again.  They helped support refugees in camps in the Netherlands and set up feeding programmes to help starving people in Germany and Austria after the Armistice. Some of their workers were vilified when they realised that enemy aliens interned in camps on the Isle of Man and on mainland Britain were in desperate need of help.  They helped the internees’ families and set up craft workshops in the camps, reducing the incidence of mental health problems among the internees.

    A poster advertising the need for recruits to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment. (Courtesy LOC, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Groups set out onto the midge infested moors of Britain to collect sphagnum moss to be made into highly absorbent dressings and the Prince of Wales set up a centre for this work on Dartmoor. John Penoyre collected cricket sweaters from his friends and colleagues, which he dyed khaki and sent out to troops, when uniforms were in short supply.  Lady Smith-Dorrien recruited women to make thousands of cotton bags to hold the personal belongings of men in hospital. Other volunteers made unimaginable numbers of sandbags, knitted, sewed, rolled bandages, invented appliances to help amputees and men with other wounds, collected unwanted silver to raise money to buy ambulances, collected eggs and cigarettes for the sick and wounded, sent parcels to prisoners of war and were available to apply their ingenuity and adaptability to any other area where they could be of use.

    Many of the women who volunteered to work overseas were brave, indomitable mavericks who longed for adventure and who relished many of their experiences.  Over time stress took its toll on them. Some died, either through illness or injury. Some came home when they could no longer cope. It is no wonder that many of them found adapting to normal life difficult after the end of the war and a number stayed away, working in hospitals and orphanages in the countries they had come to love.

    Like many writers I could have gone on researching indefinitely but had to recognise when the time had come to start writing.  It is a strange feeling when you are no longer immersed in a particular subject and I am happy to be able to give talks about various aspects of the work these civilians did.  Now I have to turn to the subject for my next book.

    Sally White's new book Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Aldeburgh to Southwold by Terry Philpot

    By 1910, what was left of All Saints Church, Dunwich, was in danger of toppling into the sea, as it did twelve years later. (Courtesy of Michael Rouse, Secret Aldeburgh to Southwold, Amberley Publishing)

    Suffolk, particularly Southwold to Aldeburgh, still retains a beguiling, largely unspoiled remoteness. The flat landscape is dotted with farms, the big sky illuminates the littleness of life, and the ruined abbey and castle bespeak a rich past.

    In traversing this landscape, I confess to a personal connection, which has enhanced the pleasure of writing this book. The novelist Maggie Hemingway was born in Orford but moved to New Zealand when she was a small child and later settled in Deal in Kent. Yet, when she crossed the Stour at Manningtree on the train, she would say, ‘Now I’m home.’ My attachment is more distant, but nonetheless deeply felt. My paternal great-grandfather moved to London in the 1860s, leaving behind the ghosts of generations who had lived in the part of the county that is the subject of this book. The names of the villages through which I have often passed are redolent of family births, marriages, burials and places of earning a living (or sometimes not). My great-great-grandparents were married at Wenhaston in the church of the great doom painting, though they could never have seen it for at that time it was still hidden beneath Edward VI’s Protestant plaster. I have been coming to this area for forty years and whenever I cross the Essex-Suffolk border I still experience something of Maggie Hemingway’s sense of homecoming.

    The Martello Tower, Slaughden. (Courtesy of D. Kirkham, Landmark Trust, Secret Aldeburgh to Southwold, Amberley Publishing)

    So far as people are concerned, I have attempted to write of the subject’s association with the town or village, rather than offer a potted biography of their lives.

    Alas, in some cases, there is nothing to say as I could trace no more than a birthplace – like that of the great documentary film-maker Humphrey Jennings (Walberswick) and the Victorian photographer Robert Howlett (Theberton). While P. D. James had a home in Southwold and also set some of her books in the county, she wrote an entertaining and charming memoir, Time to be in Earnest, but this tells very little about her Suffolk life, other than that she entertained family and friends and was a regular communicant at St Edmund’s Church. (Her fellow crime writer, Ruth Rendell, lived in Babergh, which is outside the geographical scope of my remit.)

     

     

    Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh. (Courtesy of Colin Huggins, Secret Aldeburgh to Southwold, Amberley Publishing)

    With two necessary exceptions, I have drawn a line by writing about only those who are dead. Ronald Blythe, happily still writing at ninety-three, is inextricable from what I call the Aldeburgh Festival Circle. A later friend of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (she met them in 1971, only five years before the composer’s death) was the then young but accomplished novelist Susan Hill.

    Fortunately, the biographies of buildings and places are (usually) far less well-hidden than those of people, but there were many discoveries there too – even in an area already well mapped.

    The reader or visitor asks: Who? What? When? Where? Why? Whether events, buildings or people are familiar or obscured I have attempted to answer those questions and, in so doing, reveal their secrets.

    Terry Philpot's new book Secret Aldeburgh to Southwold is avialable for purchase now.

  • Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing by Bill Simpson

    USS Wasp in British waters in 1942. It is likely that it is in the Firth of Clyde. (c. IWM Image A 9483, Reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    Having written in the past about our local squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force here in Edinburgh, 603, I was both intrigued and uncomfortable about allegations made against the young American NCO pilot, ‘Bud’ Walcott, who was posted to the squadron in early 1942. At that time, Malta had been under siege by German and Italian forces based in Sicily since the summer of 1940 and things were grim. The island, in the middle of the Mediterranean was vital to the British campaign in North Africa and they were desperate to stop it falling into Axis hands.

    Axis aircraft based in Sicily 60 miles away were bombing Malta constantly and the British were struggling to keep them at bay with the limited fighter aircraft they could get through. In early 1942, it was decided that Spitfires were needed and 47 pilots (without the ground crews) of two auxiliary squadrons – 603 (City of Edinburgh) and 601 (County of London) Squadrons – with brand new Spitfires were discreetly taken into the western Mediterranean in the American carrier USS Wasp and in the early hours of 20 April 1942, they made a difficult take-off from the deck of the carrier to fly the 400 odd miles to Malta.

    An elevation of one of the Spitfire VCs flown by 603 Squadron to Malta. This one was flown by Bill Douglas. (c. Reproduced with the kind permisson of Richard Caruana, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    But only 46 arrived. Bud Walcott did not and it was immediately assumed that he had chosen to ‘desert’ to the enemy because he was frightened of flying in the Malta battle – said by some to be more intense and dangerous than the Battle of Britain. A signal from the Air Officer Commanding Malta to the Air Ministry in London stated that Walcott had ‘intended to desert’, that he had no intention of going to Malta and had previously landed in the Irish republic in an attempt to be interned and returned to the USA. It was subsequently suggested that having crash landed in ‘neutral’ Vichy French North Africa, he had made his way to the office of an American consul and been repatriated to his home country. It was also suggested that he had been seen in an internment camp but essentially, after taking off from Wasp, he was never seen again.

    Having been made, the allegation has been repeated in several works about the air fighting in Malta including, sadly, one of my own – although I did soften it because of the circumstances that Walcott found himself in. He was an American in a foreign air force, in a squadron in which he was disliked, about to be sent to some of the most vicious air fighting of the Second World War with no operational experience and finding himself in the more comfortable and familiar environment of an American warship.

    603 Squadron pilots on the deck of the USS Wasp, Walcott is in the back row, bareheaded. (c. Official US Navy photo, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    Could he be blamed for having second thoughts?

    I very quickly became concerned at the lack of evidence to justify the allegations made against him and together with a fellow writer and historian, Squadron Leader Bruce Blanche, tried to find out what evidence there was and if possible, establish just what did happen to Walcott. What we discovered was that Walcott’s life was buffeted by national factors out of his control – the Second World War and the Cold War and, intriguingly, that the decisions about what should happen to him when he landed in Dublin may have involved the head of the Irish government Éamonn De Valera and have been influenced by relations between neutral Eire and the United States. I suspect too, that some of the social attitudes within 603 and the auxiliaries who did not take kindly to the lively, almost brash young ‘Yank’ who arrived in the unit contributed.

    Walcott volunteered to fight for the British in the Second World War by joining the Royal Canadian Air Force – an act which could have cost him his US citizenship but he is given little credit for this. He was also involved in a frightening mid-air collision with another 603 Squadron Spitfire in which the other pilot was killed and this seems to have raised strong feelings of dislike for him in the unit. And these became to be expressed in the allegations against him all of which emanated from the squadron.

    603 Bill Douglas preparing his aircraft below deck for launching to Malta on 20 April 1942. Note the crude application of the blue paint particularly noticeable around the serial number. (c.Official US Navy photo, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    From the research we have carried out, I have been able to draw conclusions as to the quality of the evidence to support the allegations made and have found out just what did happen to Walcott both with regards to Malta and the rest of his life which came to a premature and rather tragic end in the early 1960s.

    I have to give my profound thanks to Squadron Leader Blanche for all of his help and encouragement without which this book would not have been written.

    The auxiliary squadrons were different to the regular RAF units. They drew their members from local areas and before the war, many of them were seen as gentlemens’ flying clubs for the wealthy young officers who joined as pilots and who – it has to be said – fought and died with great courage when war broke out. But many came from a privileged background – the nobility and the landed and professional classes. 601 was known as ‘the millionaires’ squadron’. The ground crews were also drawn from the local areas but tended to remain intact whilst the war progressed and the aircrews were killed, injured or posted on elsewhere to be replaced by non-auxiliary airmen. The essential spirit of the auxiliary squadrons resided with the ground crews who in some cases did not even regard some of the British pilots posted to the squadrons as real members of the squadrons because they were not auxiliaries.

    As an American, Walcott ‘ticked’ the wrong boxes and in my view paid the price.

    Bill Simpson's new book Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing is available for purchase now.

  • The Seventies Railway by Greg Morse

    A Class 46 on a 'parcels' in 1975, by which time Post Office traffic had dropped from its peak. (c. Colour-Rail, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    My earliest memory of the real railway is of the prototype High Speed Train plunging under a bridge near my Swindon home, but I got a much better look later in 1975 when a certain D1023 brought a long (long!) freight to a stand at the station while I was there with my Mum and Dad.

    I was completely rapt by the locomotive, which was long, blue and sleek, which seemed to block out the sky.  Though I was yet to start taking numbers, I did notice a long, black nameplate on the side. It said Western Fusilier.  I had no idea what a fusilier was, of course, but I knew I liked the word.

    All-too-soon the signal went green, the right of way was received and the big beast growled and moved forward. Before I knew it, the brake van's oil lamp was twinkling in the moonlight and it was gone.

    The end is nigh as Class 52s D1013 Western Ranger and D1023 Western Fusilier bring the 'Western Tribute' railtour into Bristol Temple Meads on 26 February 1977. (c. Rail Photoprints, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

    I only saw one more ‘Western’ – though I didn’t know it – for I was witnessing an end and not a beginning. Anyone older (and wiser) than me would probably have been chasing the class on railtours like the ‘Westerns South Western’, ‘Western Talisman’ or ‘Western China Clay’, or making pilgrimages to the Graveyard – the Graveyard of the Diesels at Swindon Works, where many withdrawn examples sat forlorn, their fading paintwork peeling slowly in the sun.

    The writing had been on the wall not long after they’d started entering traffic in 1961, BR deeming their hydraulic transmission systems non-standard just four years later. Though the ‘Westerns’ and some of their five counterparts had been largely successful, all British Rail’s other regions were equipped to maintain diesel-electrics, which were also cheaper to build and maintain. Withdrawals were such that by April 1975, the ‘Westerns’ were the only type left in service. As they lacked the room to house the electric train heating equipment required by BR’s newer carriages, and as more of their work was taken (first by Class 50s usurped from Anglo-Scottish services by electrification, then by brand-new HST), their numbers ebbed and ebbed to the point that by February 1977 it was almost all over.

    It's around 21.15 on 26 February 1977, and with the suitably adorned D1023 now leading, the 'Western Tribute' tour prepares to leave Taunton for the final run back to Paddington. (c. Rail Photoprints, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Imagine it’s Saturday 26 February, it’s half-eight, it’s sunny, it’s cold and you’re at Paddington for BR’s ‘Western Tribute’ tour. The action’s all on Platform 2, where a phalanx of spotters, rail fans and enthusiasts vie for a view of Westerns Ranger and Fusilier at the country end. Cameras click, microphones rise, rubbings are taken – you’d think the nameplates were seventeenth-century church brasses.

    Departure comes with an almighty roar, as the mighty duo draw the train over the points and on towards Westbourne Park. By the time they return – having taken in Swindon, Bristol, Bridgend, Swansea, Plymouth, Taunton and Reading – it will be twenty-to-midnight. Fusilier will return to its birthplace to be preserved for the nation; Ranger will make for Plymouth Laira, where it’ll shunt a few wagons on the Monday morning, before towing the ‘Tribute’s’ two understudies – Campaigner and Lady – to Newton Abbot. When the driver powers down, takes out the master key and climbs from the cab, that’ll be it…Ranger will range on BR no more.

    The End was covered on the local television news, it was covered in The Guardian too. No one had shed many tears when BR’s early diesel failures had been withdrawn, but those had died in the days of steam. The ‘Westerns’ might have seen off the Great Western’s mighty ‘Castles’ and ‘Kings’, but for younger believers, they were a favourite and their loss was much mourned. Of course it all made perfect sense if you were trying to run a railway, but still... thank goodness for memories. Thank goodness for preservation.

    Greg Morse's new book The Seventies Railway is aviable for purchase now.

  • The Sultans by Jem Duducu

    The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History

    The Ottoman Empire is a topic that raises eyebrows. In some countries, it is a legacy best forgotten; in others, it is a hotly-debated topic and, in a handful, national pride has been nailed to this vital part of their history. Putting aside all the nationalist politics, the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating subject covering a dynasty that lasted 600 years. However, ignoring this empire is folly. What the Ottomans did and what happened after it was dismantled has affected the current politics in countries as diverse as Serbia, Iraq and Israel. My new book about the Ottomans attempts to put them into a historical perspective and also reveal the culture of the civilisation that is all too often overlooked in the quest for a purely military reading of their history or Western writers attempting to exaggerate the exotic rather than showing the similarities between the Sublime Porte and Western powers.

    Here then are just a few of the varied facts and stories about this empire that are so recent it's worth remembering that there are still a few alive today that were born subjects to the sultans.

    1) The founder of the empire was a man called Osman

    The imposing outer gate and wall of Topkapi Palace. The home of the Ottoman Sultans for centuries. (Author's collection, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man who is seen as the founder of the empire. (His name is sometimes spelt Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’.) The Seljuks had arrived from the Asiatic steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations, when Osman ruled a tiny Anatolian territory at the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the mould of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Genghis Khan before he won an empire).

    It was with Osman’s successor that, on his day of coronation, the tradition of wearing Osman’s sword, girded by his belt, began. This was the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the West and was a reminder to all of the thirty-six sultans who followed that their power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers. This certainly rang true in the first half of the history of the empire, and for the next 300 years, sultans would regularly be seen in battle; but as the empire matured and then waned, so the sultans began to shirk their duties on the battlefield.

    Osman’s lavishly-decorated sword and belt are the Ottoman equivalent of the coronation crown jewels, but it’s doubtful that what is seen today (on display in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul) is what Osman held in his hand. Putting it simply, Osman was unlikely ever to have had such an impractical sword, but it could be that the original blade was later plated and embellished.

    Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the West, a founder of an idea and a near-mythical figure. During his lifetime, he was so unimportant that we have absolutely no contemporary sources about him. We don’t know what he looked like; we have no proclamations extant from his reign. Osman’s reign began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Ages.

    2) The Ottomans were unlucky

    The statue in Uzbekistan of Emir Timur, Tamperlane, the conqueror of the early Ottoman Empire. (Courtesy of Francisco Anzola under Creative Commons, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    Only once did a sultan die during a battle (in battle) and only one sultan was ever captured by an enemy. Unfortunately for the early empire, these sultans were father and son. In 1389, at the famous Battle of Kosovo, Murad I was in his tent as his forces fought a brutal and bloody engagement with Serb forces. A contemporary account states that, ‘… having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, heroically reached the tent of Murat (sic) … (and killed him) by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly.’

    While this account claims to describe how Murad died, it doesn’t ring true. The idea that a dozen Serbs were able to break through the entire central force of the Ottoman army, which we know held for the whole battle, doesn’t make sense. Instead, there is a later report that as the Serb lines crumbled, a Serbian aristocrat (often named as Miloš Obilić) pretended to defect and was brought before the sultan. Murad, believing that any change to the battle would finally break the deadlock, met Miloš in his private tent, where the Serb lunged forward and stabbed Murad before the guards reacted. This would make more sense against the overall events of the day. Either way, after twenty-seven years of rule, Murad lay dead in a pool of his own blood.

    Murad’s son and heir, Bayezid I, was present at the battle and had already proven himself to be a fearsome warrior. He was known as Bayezid Yildirm (thunderbolt) because he moved as quickly and struck as lethally as a thunderbolt. Amongst many other military successes, he was to annihilate the last serious crusade sent from Europe to counter the rising tide of Islamic power. However in 1402, he had to face a new threat, that of the legendary Tamerlane (actual title Emir Timur). The two warlords met at the Battle of Ankara, where more than 150,000 men, horses and even war elephants clashed.

    Accounts of the battle are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. What is clear is that a pivotal point in the battle took place when some of Bayezid’s Anatolian vassals switched sides or melted away, leaving him with an even greater numerical disadvantage against Tamerlane. However, the core of the Ottoman force fought bravely. The battle was vicious and the resulting carnage was enormous. By the end of the day it was said that around 50,000 Ottoman troops lay dead; the same was said of Tamerlane’s force. If these numbers are true (and there’s no way of knowing), it was one of the bloodiest battles in world history prior to the 20th century. Bayezid might have been up against a man who was his equal in leadership, but Tamerlane simply had more of everything - and some elephants.

    Bayezid had thrown all of his empire’s resources into the battle, but he couldn’t overcome the fact that Tamerlane’s empire was bigger. By the end of that violent and sweltering July day, Bayezid’s army was in tatters, and he and his wife had been captured, showing that Bayezid had personally fought to the bitter end.

    Bayezid’s death in captivity led to a period of civil war and infighting amongst his sons, each of whom wanted to become the next sultan. These events almost undid the empire just 100 years into its history.

    3) Ottomans are not the same as ‘Turks’

    The Ottoman Harem, a small village where around 300 concubines and their children lived. It was a palace within the Sultans' palace of Topkapi. (Author's collection, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman Empire is that many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing. It is thanks to European ignorance (that has lasted centuries) and to nation building in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans. Quite often in European Renaissance literature, the sultan was referred to as the ‘Great Turk’, a title that would have meant nothing to the Ottoman court. So let’s clear this up: the Ottoman Empire, for most of its existence, predated nationalism. The attacking forces at the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 weren’t all ‘Turks’; in fact not all of the besieging forces were even Muslim.

    More than thirty of the sultans were the sons of women from the harem. Why is that salient? Because none of these women were Turkish; none of them were even born Muslim. Most of their backgrounds have been lost to the mists of time, but it seems most were European Caucasian girls, so Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians. It is likely that later ‘Turkish’ sultans were genetically far more Greek than Prince Philip.

    Similarly, any of the legendary Janissaries (including the famous architect Mimar Sinan, who started his career as a Janissary) were all Christian children who had been brought into this elite fighting force and then converted to Islam. The best modern analogy to describing anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is like saying that the anything from the British Empire was exclusively ‘English’.

    4) Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think

    A contemporary western portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent, arguably the greatest of all Ottoman Sultans. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    In the West he has become known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the East he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However here is a full list of his titles and they are fascinating:

    ‘Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah's deputy on earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of men's necks, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world, the shadow of the almighty dispensing quiet on the Earth.’

    I think we can agree that his business cards would have been awesome!

    Let's break things down: The first title is obvious and ‘Allah’s deputy’ implies his supreme Islamic authority without overstepping the mark (the word ‘Islam’ means ‘one who submits to God’). The ‘possessor of necks’ harks back to his father Selim’s practice of beheading even senior officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could expect to be beheaded for certain crimes.

    The next few titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans were aware that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman Empire) the titles of ‘emperor’ and ‘Caesar’ still had importance. Claiming to be ‘Emperor of the East and West’ was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome which, at this point, was hopelessly outclassed by the Ottomans.

    ‘King of Kings’ may sound a little Biblical, but that's only because the Gospels took the title from the Persian emperors’ shahenshah, literally, ‘king of kings’. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging a major rival, but this time it’s in the East, the Safavid Persians.

    The next few titles are little more than showing off, but then we come to ‘Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world’, which shows that the sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at the time. The ejection of the Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those living in the first half of the 16th century.

    Only two of Suleiman’s military campaigns failed; everything else he swept before him. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions. If anyone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleiman fit the bill perfectly.

    5) Perhaps the most disgusting name for a cake ever was the so-called Roman placenta cake

    I hasten to reassure the reader that placenta is not one of the ingredients in what is a delicious confection. The cake was originally a multi-layered pastry with cheese, covered in honey and bay leaves.

    The name is misleading as it is thought to come from the Greek ‘plakous’, meaning thin layer (the same root word for the term ‘placenta’). It is mentioned by a few Roman writers, including Cato, so it was obviously well known in his day and ... well, delicious enough to write about. These Roman references attest to the ancient origins of this allegedly ‘Turkish’ pastry.

    By now you have probably realised that we are talking about [a variation on] baklava. There are some differences from the original version because today it’s made with filo pastry, the cheese has been replaced with ground nuts and, while honey is still used, sugar-based syrup is far more common. While it is likely that baklava originated in the Byzantine imperial court, the recipe was also to be found in the 16th-century kitchens of Topkapi Palace. We know that baklava was first mentioned in English in 1650, so this exotic pastry has been known even in Western Europe for centuries.

    6) The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon

    The Ottoman Empire was a forgotten alley in the multiple alliances created to stop Napoleon. In this British cartoon, the Ottomans are shown to be strong but barbaric. (Courtesy of the Rijks museum, The Sultans, Amberley Publishing)

    On 20 May 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the port of Acre, where he fired the few cannons he had at the mighty defences, while the defenders sought refuge behind the city’s walls. As Napoleon was now committed to the siege, Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and marched to the aid of the city. Napoleon had always picked competent generals and, even though his force was small, Jean-Baptiste Kléber was a battle-hardened and highly capable general. His force of around 2,000 men (later joined by a little 2,000 of Napoleon’s men) met the Ottoman relief force at Mount Tabor in Palestine. By comparison, Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus, had gathered an army of over 30,000. The French were outnumbered about 9-1; but, as we have seen, numbers don’t count for everything, and the Battle of Mount Tabor was possibly the greatest (often forgotten) humiliation of Ottoman martial power.

    The Ottoman forces were made up of Sipahis, Mamelukes and other brave but outdated warrior classes. From dawn to late afternoon, Kléber sat in the hollow anti-cavalry squares, resisting every attack by Pasha al-Azm’s men. The Ottoman governor’s losses were mounting, but his army so dwarfed the French force that he could afford them. Meanwhile, after ten hours of fighting under the sweltering sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired, thirsty and dangerously low on gunpowder and ammunition. It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to match the numbers in the Ottoman army but enough to distract them by sending a few hundred men to attack and loot the Ottoman camp. Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought Napoleon’s tiny force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked, thinking he was about to be attacked from the rear and flanks. He ordered a general retreat, at which point the two French forces charged the disengaging Ottomans, and the orderly Ottoman retreat turned into a messy rout.

    Total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 killed and another 500 captured, versus two dead French soldiers. An army of around 4,500 had fought an army of over 30,000 and not only won, but sustained just two fatalities. It was a devastating humiliation for Selim III, and a spectacular triumph that allowed Napoleon to continue his siege of Acre (although he would not take the port and this would mark the furthest extent of his conquests in the Middle East).

    7) The Ottomans outlasted all their main opponents… just

    From the middle to the end of the empire, when it was on its long slow decline to collapse, the empire faced three main rival powers that crop up again and again in Ottoman history: to the East, the Persian Safavids; to the north, the Tsars of Russia and to the West, the Habsburgs.

    The Safavids fell first to Afghan invaders in 1736; and, while Persia/Iran would remain an opponent to the late Ottoman sultans, it was never the same expansionist threat it had been earlier under the Safavid dynasty.

    Similarly, as the Tsars of Russia began to spread their power south towards the Crimean peninsula and the Black Sea, the Ottomans began to lose ground and were forced to fight multiple wars with the Tsars. The most famous of these in the West is the Crimean War, when France and Britain joined sides with the Ottomans to prop up the failing state against the rising star of Russian power. However, the sultans were still seated in power when the last Tsar, Nicholas II, was first deposed and later shot.

    The Habsburgs and Ottomans fought so regularly that Vienna was twice besieged by Ottoman forces. There were so many clashes between the two empires that some of the war names were half-hearted, such as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). However, during the last war the Ottoman Empire was involved in (the First World War) the Ottomans were on the same side as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by a Habsburg. That dynasty didn’t quite make it to the end of the war, whereas the Ottoman Empire survived for a few years after it. The Ottoman sultans didn’t have time to gloat, however. The empire was dismantled by the victorious Allied powers of First World War, and a way of life that had lasted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century was gone by 1922, when the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was forced into exile.

    Jem Duducu's new book The Sultans: The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History is available for purchase now.

  • The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45 by Martin Watts

    HMS Glory pictured in 1946. (The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45, Amberley Publishing)

    As an academic historian and lecturer this is the first time that I have written for a general readership as well as a specialist audience. History, in popular culture and media, has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past twenty five years, and I think this is mainly due to research of lived experiences, often referred to as history from the bottom up. One of the effects of this approach is to bring to life both collective and individual experiences, so that readers can appreciate the consequences of the actions and behaviours of states, organisations and those in power, upon the ordinary and not so ordinary person. This allows for a more balanced and nuanced interpretation of the past and, by invoking the human condition, takes public discourse in history to a more engaging and per4sonally involved level.

    Sergeant Major Nobby Elliott (The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45, Amberley Publishing)

    In this book I have sought to combine history from the top down, using primary sources to analyse strategy and the design and function of ships, with history from the bottom up, whereby the wartime career of a great uncle has been used to provide a spine for the history I have to tell. My great uncle Nobby Elliott served in the Royal Marines 1924-50 and spent 5 years at sea, as a gunlayer, during the Second World War, serving in 3 types of warship and in all maritime theatres of war. My hope, supported by the extremely helpful team at Amberley, is that this combination will add to public knowledge and understanding of the prolonged and desperate war fought at sea, in the face of two foes - the opposition and the unforgiving waters that threatened the very survival of friend and foe alike.

    Over 70 years have passed since the end of the war, and it seems to me (as a former merchant seaman) that public awareness of Britain's dependence upon the sea and ships is not what it used to be, and I hope this book will go some way to restoring the balance and acknowledging the debt that is owed to those who lost their lives in the ocean wastes.

    Martin Watts new book The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45 is available for purchase now.

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